Part 2: Them & Us (or why we might need a dose of populism in planning)

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Rutger Bregman was an overnight sensation after his speech at the World Economic Forum. The Dutchman delivered an unexpected home-truth to his audience made up of the world’s richest and most influential people who had gathered in Switzerland to discuss how they feel the world can be improved, when he said “I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality, and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance and of the rich just not paying their fair share,”

Time for some plain speaking ourselves about why the planning establishment in Scotland behave in the way they do towards the public. Bregman assumes the best in people and says it is possible to redesign our democracy and achieve a utopian reality.  If only the Planning Minister shared his bold ideas and visionary thinking, then we could dare to dream that things can fundamentally change.

Andy Inch’s blog part two

I ended my previous post by suggesting Kevin Stewart’s headaches might not have gone away when his Burns night hangover wore off. In this follow up I’d like to further explore why things have gang a-agley with the planning review by looking more closely at the relationship between the planning system and the public whose interests it claim to have at heart.

Throughout the review process there has been a widely shared sense that this relationship is a problem. The Scottish Government’s own research on barriers to engagement was very clear about the levels of mistrust in the planning process. Pretty much everyone agrees conflict between communities, planners and developers is not a good thing. But there is much less agreement about the nature of the conflict, what causes it and what should be done about it.

As during the reforms that led to the 2006 Planning Etc. Scotland Act, the official response has been to call for communities to get involved earlier in the process, ‘frontloading’ in planner-speak. If you can get agreement about development written into plans then it should be easier to avoid conflict when decisions are subsequently made on planning applications. Fair enough. This is a good idea, in principle. But despite being consistently promoted since publication of the Skeffington Report on Public Participation in Planning fifty years ago it has never been consistently realised in practice.

There is little reason to believe this cycle of failed promises is about to change in Scotland. The much-vaunted introduction of Local Place Plans (LPPs) may help some communities around the edges but it’s highly unlikely they will cover the whole country. And it’s quite likely they will deepen inequalities between communities who have the resources to get involved and those who don’t. Elsewhere there is no sign of any significant change in approach or increase in resources and the current bill will, if anything, reduce opportunities for communities to influence development plans. Hardly evidence of commitment to meaningful early engagement.

So what’s with a review process that identifies a serious problem but doesn’t seriously seek to solve it?

Since Skeffington, the principle of public participation has become accepted in law and policy. This means that there are three core sets of interests in planning, planning authorities, applicants for planning permission and wider publics, and not just two as some like RTPI Scotland and MSP Anabelle Ewing[i] have been erroneously claiming. As the Aarhus Convention makes clear, people have rights to a say in decisions that affect their lives. But this principle sits uneasily alongside the dominant story which says that planning exists to facilitate development. Making predominantly market-led development synonymous with the public interest leaves little space for meaningful community engagement. If you already know the answer is going to be yes then why bother asking folk what they think? And heaven help us if they should say no…

The dominant story therefore creates adversarial roles for planners, communities and developers: the planning profession frequently finds itself fighting alongside the development industry against communities concerned about the impacts of development. Professionals deal with this by dismissing concerned communities as NIMBYs who lack understanding of the wider needs of society and have unrealistic expectations about influencing decision-making. Communities of place are not homogenous and can find themselves divided by proposals for new development. Those who invest time and energy in good faith to have a say often come away frustrated, frequently feeling the whole thing is little more than a stitch up. Local councillors oscillate uncomfortably between representing voters and the formal obligations the planning system imposes on them.

The other reason there is conflict at the end of the planning process is rooted in the legal framework. Scotland has a discretionary system where decisions are made on a case by case basis. Plans guide but do not determine how land is used and developed. This provides a great deal of flexibility but also plays into the hands of professionals by making the whole process opaque to anyone lacking detailed knowledge of what is and what isn’t a ‘material consideration’. It also means that decision-making power in the system is firmly end-loaded.

This is why calls to front-load public engagement ring so hollow. Without meaningful changes at the end of the planning process they are at best naïve and at worst downright disingenuous. What they effectively mean is let’s get those pesky communities out the way so the professionals can get on with the serious business.

This is nowhere more evident than in attitudes towards appeal rights where the planning establishment believe there should be one rule for developers and a totally different one for communities. If we take the government seriously, the purpose of allowing appeals is not to enable democratic scrutiny and potentially improve decisions but to push through ever more permissions for new housing. In short, it seems end-loaded planning is fine for some but not for others.

It also makes clear how corrosive the dominant story is for any attempt to build a more positive planning system. Most observers agree this should be based on creating a ‘plan-led system’. But there has been silence about the fact that the legal mechanics and developer interests vested in end-loaded planning make that very hard. If we were serious about creating a plan-led system, rather than one that primarily reacts to development proposals, we might consider two options.

One would be to move towards the kind of zoning system common in many other parts of Europe, where designations in plans are effectively legally binding. The proposed introduction of ‘masterplan consent areas’ may be a limited move in that direction. The other, less radical approach would be to add checks and balances to limit, discourage and scrutinise decisions that depart from a plan. One obvious way to do that would be through reforms to the appeals process.

Whilst not a panacea, restricting appeals to decisions that depart from a development plan would create a powerful presumption in favour of the development plan in decision-making. The fact that the government, profession and development industry have vehemently opposed any such change from the beginning, doing their best to shut down debate without ever even addressing these arguments, speak volumes. Instead they have clung to the dominant story, claiming, without producing any evidence, that any such change would undermine investor confidence and slow up decision-making.

The establishment response to the failure of amendments to the planning bill that would have equalised appeal rights has been telling. Tammy Swift-Adams, Director of Planning for the Housebuilders’ industry body, Homes for Scotland, claimed the decision as a victory for ‘pragmatism’ over ‘populism’. The analogy was unfortunate. Equating pragmatism with adherence to the status-quo and dismissing the idea that planning should be a positive means of democratically guiding the development of Scotland’s places as populism reinforces the sense of an unaccountable elite unwilling or even unable to listen.


Which brings us back to Kevin Stewart’s headache. The huge number of amendments to the planning bill can be read as an expression of underlying discontent with Scotland’s planning system, a sense that it is not serving the interests of people or places. The problem for the government is that this isn’t the discontent they thought they were addressing when they announced the review. Paracetamol won’t fix it Kevin but ditching the broken record playing the same tired old story might be a good start.





[i]  Annabelle Ewing stated that “as a matter of law, the planning system has, on the one hand, the broad public interest, represented by the role of Government—local planning authorities, ministers and civil servants— and, on the other hand, the interests of the private applicant.”

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